Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Missing, most wanted

Every (most?) classic film fans will, at some stage or another, find themselves wishing they could see a film considered lost. Common ones include Tod Browning's "London After Midnight" starring Lon Chaney or Murnau's "4 Devils", both available in reconstructed approximations using stills - most lost films don't even have that. Others like "Sadie Thompson" with Gloria Swanson survive in trucated forms, in this particular case nearly complete, but on the other hand only one reel has been found of "The Divine Woman" with Garbo (there are other instances where only small fragments survive). Occasionally, miracles happen - the Gloria Swanson/Valentino only pairing "Beyond the Rocks" was found in the early 2000s and more recently, the nearly complete director's cut of "Metropolis".

And of course there are versions of films which were never released, like Orson Welles' cut of "The Magnificient Ambersons" which I think would top anyone's most wanted list. Although even in this department miracles do happen, as the 2004 finding of the pre-release cut of "Baby Face" now available on the "Forbidden Hollywood vol 1" DVD set (not holding my breath for "Ambersons" though).

So, which one is mine? Well, it's an infamous WB Pre-code comedy called (yes, you've guessed it...) "Convention City" starring Joan Blondell, Mary Astor, Adolph Menjou and an array of other familiar faces of the studio. This is possibly the last major production of a Hollywood studio to be lost. After the Hays Code was fully enforced it remained mostly in the vaults (although it has been shown somewhere in the US in 1937). It has since gained a reputation of being too daring even within Pre-Code limits (I doubt it can be "worst" than "Baby Face"...). A full background can be found in this thread here. Because it did had a proper release there is hope it one day may resurface, even if it's in a truncated copy. My fingers are crossed. Yet, do I really believe that it will live to my expections? Honestly, no. It was probably as memorable or as forgetable as most of the comedies produced by WB between 1930 and 1934 - but I certainly wish I had the chance to see it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

When Frank met Barbara I: Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Once upon a time a young, fast rising director met a young actress from Brooklyn with only the smallest number of films under her belt. Four years, four films and a failed love affair later, they were both established names – Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck. The films were: “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), “The Miracle Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933). A few years later, in the early 1940s they would collaborate for the final time, in “Meet John Doe”.

The current Frank Capra retrospective at the BFI has given the chance to watch these four films (I am excluding “Meet John Doe”) in a short period of time. I had seen all but “Ladies of Leisure” and own the UK R2 DVDs of both “The Miracle Woman” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. I went through these with a fairly open mind and found myself re-evaluating them for the better (I had discussed some of them here and here). My only regret was not able to see them chronologically – although that’s how I will present them here, starting with the first, “Ladies of Leisure”.

The film tells the story of the relationship between a rich boy who wants to be an artist and party girl (an euphemism for something else) he chooses to be his model for a painting personifying “Hope”. This is clearly the moment in Stanwyck’s career where you can shout “a Star is born!” – have no doubt, it’s her film (aided by the fact that the rest of the cast has largely been forgotten). And it almost didn’t happen – the actress’ first meeting with the director didn’t go very well.

A Pre-code through and through, not much is left to the imagination. Stanwyck’s occupation and that of her flatmate are more than just hinted (actually almost stated), and her character seems at ease with it, at times being quite explicit she has no issues with what she does. It’s also clear that there is some off-screen fun without the blessing of holy matrimony. Despite this, the film is less sharp around the edges than the output of Warner Bros., where Stanwyck also spent some time during the early 1930s. The focus is more on the romance between the leads and less on the bleakness of life (e.g. “Baby Face” just to stick with another Stanwyck film). Interestingly, the leading man doesn’t seem to mind very much that the object of his affections has a past, something that Columbia would explore from a different angle in “Virtue”. Furthermore, the inevitable scene between the girl and the family doesn’t follow exactly the same template of such scenes where “good” families try to get rid of what they perceive as less “good” heroines (e.g. “Shopworn”).

There are two more moments in the film that I would like to point out. Unfortunately I can’t talk about them without revealing some of the plot. So consider this your spoiler warning. The first is the sequence in the artist’s studio, when she’s forced to spend the night in the couch. At some stage we see the door open. She hears it and knows he’s coming. We see him coming closer. We know she is in love with him, and as such she would like him to be different than the others (i.e. put a little ring around her finger). For a few seconds Capra teases us and makes us wonder what is going to happen. It’s a great sequence extremely well edited and a sort of rehearsal for the final sequence. Extremely well shot and edited, the final minutes of the film have a rhythm and suspense unusual in those very first years of sound. Plus, to be honest I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end, which is always a plus.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

After watching Robert Siodmark's "The Strange Afair of Uncle Harry" I looked around online - there seems to be a general consensus that this is a very good film with the most disappointing ending. I am not at all surprised, as I totally agree. However, I think that most people don't realise is that the original ending of the play would not be allowed. It's true that other options could have allowed some of the spirit of the source material, but this way we almost have it. And watching the film, you can certainly spot what has been added (so you can always stop the film a few minutes before the end card).
All that said, the film is definitely worth a look. George Sanders is the emasculated last heir of an old family that has lost all its money in the depression. He has been forced to work to support himself and two sisters, one a widow (played by Angela Lansbury's mother, Moyna MacGill) and the other, the youngest, an "invalid" (Geraldine Fitzgerald). When a NY company representative (Ella Rains) arrives in town he promptly falls for her and asks her to marry him. While one sister is happy, the other manages to undermine their relationship. When she succeeds in breaking the couple up, something Harry snaps.

The story is, until the very moment, exceptionally good, with good character characterization and the ability of draw you to it. And Siodmark (who following this would make "The Spiral Staircase", the exceptional "The Killers" and one my favourite Olivia de Havilland films' "The Dark Mirror") knows exactly how to create tension: the overbearingness of Geraldine Fitzgerald's conservatory; the release that Ella Rains represents; a wonderful shot of a fallen cup followed by a close-up of Fitzgerald's face. And he gets to take the best out of his cast. If we ignore Ella Rains entirely forgettable performance, the actors are astonishing. The three siblings and Sara Allgood as their maid are fantastic. George Sanders manages to go from meak to determined in a very subtle and believable way; and Moyna MacGill's confrontations with Geraldine Fitzgerald are full of sibling rivalry. But this is Fitzgerald's film. She's twisted, double faced, manipulative, hints at incestuous desires and she has fun with it. Her final scene with Sanders she proves him that whatever happened, she won.

I wish the original ending had been kept, or that the film might have been made in the UK where I suspect the censors might just about get things past (or maybe I am being optimistic). However, in the great world of messed-up Hollywood endings, it's neither alone, nor is it the worst one ever.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Turnabout (1940)

When I wrote about “Love Me Tonight” I mentioned how much better the film would be if only it had different leads. I now found a companion piece, Hal Roach’s “Turnabout”. This largely forgotten film, released in 1940, was shown as part of the London Film Festival’s “Treasures from the Archives” section. To be entirely honest, I had never heard of the film until I saw the programme. It caught my attention as it had Mary Astor in the cast, and that usually is rewarding (and was, but more of that in a moment).

The film tells a story of a couple (a health-obsessed advertiser and his lady-who-lunches wife) who switch bodies when they agree that they would like to step into each other’s shoes – being the first time they agree on something the wish is granted. Both actors, Carole Landis and John Hubbard, were altogether unknown to me and going through their filmography I hardly recognised any title. And from what I saw, it came as no surprise.

The leads’ main problem is that they are, to put it mildly, extremely irritating. There is clearly no chemistry between them, and they just left me wonder what did each saw in the other. They’re also a source of uncomfortable humour when they switch bodies. Playing on easy laughs, John Hubbard is camper than a drag queen (and far more effeminate than his wife, if that makes sense) although he does imitate some of her facial expressions well – we are certainly miles away from Dustin Hoffman’s superb Tootsie. It also pushes credibility a bit too much: how many women, finding themselves in a man's body would go around carrying a handbag? Carole Landis is a bit better but not much more. Both characters behave as if oblivious to the fact they changed bodies. Script logic holes like this only sem to reinforce the film's sole point - don't try to change your life; be content - and if you're a woman, remember, you're frivolous and of no consequence and your real place is in the home.

On the other hand the film is filled of an amazing cast of supporting actors, all of them excellent. Adolph Menjou (who gets top billing although he’s the third lead) and Mary Astor, as Hubbard's main business partner and his bitchy wife steal the show, as you’d expect from actors of that quality. But you also have Donald Meek, Marjorie Main, Franklin Pangborn and a few others familiar faces who manage to salvage as much as possible of the film.

I was impressed with the ending of the film, which is a bit risqué (apparently it and some other scenes were controversial with the censors) and with the mention, during the film’s introduction, of a scene not in the film but in the novel – the rape of the husband in the wife’s body by the wife in the husband’s body. Wonder if they would touch that scene today…

Still the biggest laughs came, not from the film itself, but from something else. While restoring the film the archivists found the original introduction, interval and closing to film’s first TV presentation. Because these were shot on film, they decided to incorporate them into this screening, as it was shown in 1951 on American TV, sponsored by Schlitz, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous”. And since 1950s TV adverts have not aged very well, they are hilarious.

Friday, 5 November 2010

It Happened One Night (1934)

When I was much younger and getting into classic films I often fell in love with the Frank Capra’s films I had a chance to see, i.e. those from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s (roughly from “Lady for a Day” to “It’s a Wonderful Life”). As I grew older, and more cynical, I found that my taste changed, and I grew further apart from his films (I have changed my mind again on one or two). There were, however, some exceptions: “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”; “Arsenic and Old Lace” which has to be the less-Capraesque of all his films and, of course, “It Happened One Night”.

Like “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “It Happened One Night” seems to be far from his bolder social statements. Yes, there is some criticism of the upper classes, but nothing that is too distracting. Instead the focus is really in the war of the sexes love story between a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a fast talking and recently unemployed reported (Clark Gable) while travelling from Miami to New York.

While this indeed one of the great romantic comedies ever made, after watching it I was able to put it in context in a way I hadn’t before. For the past few years I became more and more familiar with silent and Pre-code films, as this blog attests. So while before my film knowledge really started at around 1934, now it goes much further back. And this allowed me to see the film in an altogether different light.

Suddenly I fully understand why this is a cornerstone film. Perhaps its key achievement is how subtly different in construction is from its contemporary comedies. Unlike many other comedies from the early 1930s, for instance, the WB comedies with the likes of Joan Blondell or James Cagney or Lubitsch’s films at Paramount, this is a milder affair – both sexually and verbally. Yes, there are clear innuendos and dialogue flies, but comparing that with Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century” (along which is credited as the first important screwball comedy) it’s tame. But this apparent loss is actually to the film’s gain. The story is told in less fragmented manner, more coherently. This approach allowed the characters to develop, instead of being one or two dimensional creatures and would be the template on how Hollywood treated comedy until the end of WWII. And yes, for the following few years, spoiled heiresses would keep falling in love with wisecracks and witty dialogue would attempt to reveal the sexual tension that could not be properly shown, thus creating what is known as “screwball comedy”.

In case you haven’t seen the film, I think I should mention that Colbert and Gable are excellent, both giving career high performances and both, like Capra, collecting Oscars – making this the first of only three films to win the five main awards: film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Gable’s performance is probably the most relaxed I have ever seen him on screen. Oh yes, and that end scene that brought the house down with laughter...